This second in the “Red Princess” trilogy is an exciting and well-plotted mystery wrapped around a continued powerful in-depth look at modern China’s political, economic and social contradictions. The story begins in the impoverished Chinese countryside which was for a while the touted model of the Cultural Revolution, until it was once again abandoned to its fate and to the cruel exploitation of foreign investors and local opportunists. Then we are back in Beijing, where our heroine Detective Liu Hulan is called upon to investigate the alleged suicide of an old friend’s daughter Miaoshan. And suddenly we are in Los Angeles, where Hulan’s lover attorney David Stark is nearly gunned down and a friend killed by unknown assailants, and Stark is sent to China by his former employer to represent American interests in a controversial sale that intersects Hulan’s own investigation.
Liu Hulan is herself a brilliantly portrayed mass of contradictions. A privileged daughter of wealth—a so-called Red Princess—whose father proved to be a corrupt murderer who killed himself at the end of the first novel–, she had been one of the first young teens sent out to the countryside in the 60s to embrace and extol the virtues of the Cultural Revolution and to denounce all who questioned or disobeyed Mao’s teachings. After her family was denounced for its wealth, a family patron smuggled Hulan out of China and into the U.S., where she went to school, became a lawyer and met Stark, before returning to China, joining the Ministry of Internal Security and began working under the protection and aegis of that same family patron, now the Minister. Hulan is now pregnant with Stark’s baby, conceived during their joint adventures in the first of the series, but is not ready to commit to a marriage.
In the course of her investigation, Hulan discovers that all is not right at an American-owned toy factory where Miaoshan had worked, and who may have given her life to smuggle out plans and financial documents related to the factory whose owner is now selling his interests throughout China to the huge American toy company represented by Stark. Hulan goes undercover at the factory, Stark begins to suspect the powerful and ambitious governor of the province of corruption, and people start to die.
The plot, or multiple plots as it turns out, are complicated enough, but See makes sure that her readers get an uncomfortably close-up and personal view of a China trying desperately to join the 21st century but still corrupted by Maoist cultural and social doctrine layered over with brutal class divisions and widespread venality. A provocative social commentary tied to an exciting and well-drawn mystery.